Blog: Latino Ed Beat

In Maryland, Success with English Language Learners

In the world of early education, the Montgomery County, Md. school district  is well-known for its remarkable efforts to build a seamless pipeline that moves students not just from pre-K to third grade but all the way to college. A new report from the Foundation for Child Development highlights the district’s success with its English language learners (ELLs), 62 percent of whom are Spanish-speaking.

Since 2003, Montgomery County has narrowed the achievement gap between all third-grade students and the Limited English Proficient subgroup  by 36 percentage points. And over 75 percent of its Latino students go on to college.

What are the secrets to the district’s success? Number one, it pays close attention to all students for whom English is not the first language, regardless of what language is spoken in their homes or whether they are receiving formal ELL services or not. Also, some students who have become proficient enough to exit formal ELL instruction might still need support to master academic English, so district leaders and principals continue to track those students’ data to keep them from slipping through cracks.

The report cites other strategies, too: designing a full ELL curriculum from pre-K to third grade that focuses on mastery of academic English; using formative assessments to guide teaching with more information than state tests alone offer; providing strong training to help teachers build the skills they need to help ELLs acquire the language; welcoming families of all linguistic backgrounds by building partnerships and offering targeted support.

Two major lessons Montgomery County’s experience demonstrates are the benefits of focusing on academic (not just social) English and  building your own assessments rather than relying on off-the-shelf tests. According to the report, the district’s success also suggests it is important to employ a variety of teaching strategies that integrate language instruction for ELLs into regular lessons and to use “sheltered” English techniques (lessons using clear, direct and simple English to convey increasingly complex ideas).

What are your districts doing to support English language learners? Are district leaders familiar with the research that shows a person learning English can master social English in about two years but takes five to seven years to grasp academic English fully? Are there policies  that set limits on how long ELLs get support? And how much can your leaders say about the difference between bilingual education, dual language instruction, and instructional strategies to help ELLs master English? These options often are lumped together, sometimes with disastrous consequences for kids.

I know in my Chicago neighborhood, the impact of what was called “transitional bilingual education” has been devastating. The intent was to keep kids from languishing in bilingual education for years on end; the result was to limit services to three years and out. I know too many kids on my own block whose vocabularies in both English and Spanish are limited, who don’t read well in English and can’t read Spanish at all.